Tag Archives: Dim Sum Rankings

Bay Area’s Best Dim Sum?

As many of you know, I did a research project to find the best dim sum in the United States. Based on the methodology I used, the top four places in the San Francisco are:

  1. Yank Sing
  2. Koi Palace
  3. Hong Kong Lounge II
  4. Mama Ji’s

Since I was in the Bay Area for 2 weeks over the holidays, I decided to eat my way through the top 4  and give my subjective review of those places and how I think they match up with their place in the rankings.

Yank Sing

The first place I visited over my time in San Francisco was Yank Sing, which is also ranked the highest. It’s also very costly with dim sum dishes priced at least $5.60 which was one of several reasons why I had never been to the restaurant until now. Despite the prices though, Yank Sing is a popular and bustling place, not only because of its food but of its proximity to San Francisco’s Financial District and tech firms in SoMa that can support the prices and become an ever constant speakerphone for their quality.

As a consequence of its high prices, however, I only ordered a few dishes which included:

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

  • Kurobata Pork Shanghai Dumplings – I can see why many people rave about these xiaolongbao. They are probably the best xiaolongbao I have ever tasted at a Cantonese dim sum place given the flavorful, melt in your mouth pork and the delicious soup that accompanied the dumplings. The pork filling was also nicely balanced out with the Chinese vinegar and slices of ginger that came with them. However, the skins could use some work as a couple did break. All in all, they are good but nothing to the level of a Shanghainese restaurant or any location of Din Tai Fung.
  • Shrimp Dumpling – In theory, the har gow at Yank Sing fits everything on what a shrimp dumpling is supposed to be. The shrimp filling has a nice snap and is added by a hint of aromatics. The dumpling skin doesn’t rip, has a nice chew, and break apart perfectly when I chew. Yet somehow I didn’t really care for them as I thought the skin was too gummy.
  • Snowpea Shoots Dumpling – I love snowpea shoots (豆苗) and they did not disappoint in these dumplings. The skin, in contrast to the har gow skin, were nice too. If it weren’t for the price I’d definitely eat more.
Pan Fried Turnip Cake at Yank Sing

Pan Fried Turnip Cake at Yank Sing

  • Pan-Fried Turnip Cake – Despite not looking that great, they actually turned out really well and perfectly fried with a nice crispy outside yet a soft chewy inside. They’re probably the best I’ve eaten.

All in all, Yank Sing was pretty good and, as you’d expect, the service was great too. Was that the best dim sum in the Bay Area though? I still had some reservations and came out of the place thinking Koi Palace might be a little better (and definitely a better value).

Mama Ji’s

The next place I went to was Mama Ji’s out in the Castro. Since Mama Ji’s is in a neighborhood with many wealthy White people instead of a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, I was a little skeptical. Regardless, it just happened to be relatively close to my brother’s SoMa apartment so a group of us decided to go and try it out.

Once we arrived, my skepticism and concerns were unfounded. The restaurant is owned by a nice couple that really try to do their best in making dim sum and to bring the delight of the cuisine to people who likely wouldn’t eat in Chinatown, much less journey to RIchmond or the Sunset.

As to the food, we ordered:

Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai at Mama Ji's

Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai at Mama Ji’s

  • Pork Shrimp Siu Mai – Pretty good and packed full of juicy, tender pork. Perhaps needed a bit more shrimp.
  • Sweet Rice with Shrimp Sausage and Egg Wrapped in Lotus Leaf – Normally made with chicken, it was interesting to see this twist with shrimp sausage and egg. It was good but I prefer the more traditional version
  • Pan Fried Turnip Cake with Dried Shrimp – The dried shrimp provided a nice salty flavor to enhance the dish but otherwise it was rather boring. Unlike the Yank Sing version, these cakes were not fried enough and were a little too oily.
  • Blanched Chinese Broccoli – As my brother insisted since none of our family dim sum experiences were complete without gai lan, I obliged and ordered it. The gai lan was pretty fresh and a nice palate cleanser to balance all the oil in the other dishes but was otherwise pretty bland.
Pork Spareribs at Mama Ji's

Pork Spareribs at Mama Ji’s

  • Steam Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce – Nice tender pork spareribs that might have just had a little too much jalapeno. I don’t mind spicy but the spice on some spareribs were a bit overpowering
  • Har Gow – The shrimp was cooked well but the skins were a bit too thick and stretchy.
Golden Lava Buns at Mama Ji's

Golden Lava Buns at Mama Ji’s

  • Steamed Golden Lava Buns – These were perfect with a nice fluffy bun on the outside and a very nice sweet and salty egg custard filling that wasn’t too runny. My brother’s fiance loved them too!

All in all these items were pretty good those definitely not to the quality of Yank Sing. Compared to other Bay Area dim sum restaurants I’ve also been to I would say Mama Ji’s is better than many of them but I am not quite sure they would land at number 4 on my personal best Bay Area dim sum list.

Hong Kong Lounge II

The next day I took some of my holiday break time to traverse to Laurel Heights and eat at the number 3 ranked dim sum place in the Bay Area, Hong Kong Lounge II. It was unfortunate that none of my friends or family could join me as they still had to work that day, but their absence does not deter me from trying out delicious food!

After waiting for about 30 minutes I got a table and started ordering. Unfortunately the restaurant has a $25 credit card minimum. However that became a blessing in disguise as I was forced to order more dishes and try a wider selection of what they make. These dishes included:

Fried Pork Puff at Hong Kong Lounge II

Fried Pork Puff at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • Fried Pork Puff (安蝦咸水角) – Hands down these were the best I’ve ever had. The puff pastry was light and flaky as it should with the filling being perfectly seasoned and not overpowering the pastry. I was really tempted to order another one!
  • P/F Turnip Cake (香煎蘿蔔糕) – These were good, but a little blander than the Mama Ji’s version. However, they were fried better but still didn’t quite get the crunch on the outside/soft in the inside texture I desire like Yank Sing
  • Shrimp Dumpling (晶瑩鮮蝦餃) – These har gow allowed the slightly crunchy shrimp filling to sing. The flip side is this meant that the skin wasn’t quite up to par as they ripped fairly easily, even if I liked the taste of the skin compared to Yank Sing.
Chinese Donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle at Hong Kong Lounge II

Chinese Donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • Chinese donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle (蔥花蝦米炸兩) – I almost got the fish with chives noodle roll (which did look tasty on the table next to me) but opted for this instead. This was definitely a great choice as the noodle rolls were made and rolled perfectly with a nicely crunchy you tiao and tasty shrimp filling in the middle. These were even better than the noodle rolls I’ve had at Cooking Papa.
Deep Fried Egg Puff Ball at Hong Kong Lounge II

Deep Fried Egg Puff Ball at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • D/F Egg Puff Ball (白糖沙翁) – As one might suspect, these were little pillows of heaven. The filling was a little more eggy than other versions I’ve had but still pretty good as dessert. They aren’t as good as Cooking Papa’s but definitely better and fresher than those served at other places like Zen Peninsula. Unfortunately with all the dishes I was so full that I couldn’t eat more than one.

Personal Conclusions

Unfortunately my schedule didn’t allow me to drive to Daly City and revisit Koi Palace. However, I had eaten there earlier in the year so I still think I have a fairly good memory and basis for comparison.

After having eaten at all 4 of the top 4 ranked dim sum places in the Bay Area I come to a little bit of a different conclusion personally. I would rate Koi Palace number 1 with Hong Kong Lounge II barely behind at number 2. Both have extremely well executed dishes and their less successful dishes arguably still shines above their closest competitors. Yank Sing is not far behind at number 3, though I doubt I’ll be visiting them again very soon as I definitely don’t have the bank account for that. Mama Ji’s is definitely number 4 in a comparison of these dim sum parlors, but I might even put them a little lower compared to others.

That said, all 4 are still on the higher end of dim sum quality in my book and I am glad I have such a variety of tasty options when I visit my friend and family in the Bay.

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Best Dim Sum in America (Part 3) – Cart vs. Menu/Check sheet

Last week I revealed the top 10 places that serve dim sum in the United States according to my methodology. While one might quibble with my methodology and how/why some restaurants are ranked where they are, one thing is undeniable: almost all places that rank high serve dim sum using a menu checklist system rather than using steamer carts or trays. Menu order dim sum parlors occupy 8 of the top 10 spots and 18 of the top 25 spots. Moreover, many of the top places for dim sum in major metropolitan areas use a dim sum menu ordering system. Not only does Sea Harbour (the #1 dim sum parlor) use a menu ordering system, but so does MingHin in Chicago, Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York City, Kirin in Honolulu, and China Max in San Diego.

Shanghai No 1 Seafood Village dim sum menu by One More Bite Blog: https://flic.kr/p/bgF1xr

Shanghai No 1 Seafood Village dim sum menu by One More Bite Blog: https://flic.kr/p/bgF1xr

Do all these data points really mean that menu order dim sum places are superior to dim sum places that still use carts?

There are many who would say no, especially a number of Baby Boomer immigrants from Hong Kong and their 2nd generation Millennial children (the ‘626 Generation’) who grew up with trays and carts being rolled around in grand dim sum seafood palaces. For many of these people, using carts and trays are the traditional way of serving dim sum. Thus, switch to ordering from a menu betrays those traditions and a number of associations with what dim sum is supposed to be like. In the modern practice of eating dim sum in the late morning and early afternoon, it’s part of the “yum cha” experience. Yum cha literally means to drink tea, but in general refers to a long midday meal where you drink tea, eat various dim sum dishes, and chat with various friends and family at your table for quite a while.

Cart at Ming Dynasty in Albuquerque, NM

Cart at Ming Dynasty in Albuquerque, NM

So in a way, using carts or trays to order and serve dim sum melds perfectly with these traditions and conceptions of dim sum and yum cha. It allows patrons to order how much and what they want at their own pace, all the while engaging in conversation and drinking tea with their friends and family at the table. By extension, it also allows people to introduce friends not familiar with dim sum in a relatively fun and less pressuring way. Dim sum novices can glance at the selections in the cart and can choose based on what is appealing then and there while skipping those that they may not find as tasty or worthwhile based on the dish’s appearance and description, if a description is offered by the person pushing the cart or friend.

However, none of those arguments for nostalgic carts serving dim sum addresses the quality of the food. A family member of mine recently said that he preferred cart style dim sum because the food seems more fresh to him. Certainly in some cases this might be true, especially if you go to a large dim sum parlor in a big city where the dim sum items turn over frequently; bonus if you are lucky enough to sit at a table close to the kitchen. However, the experience of a number of people that eat extensively at different dim sum parlors, including myself, is that those instances are rare. Often times items are in the carts are overcooked as a result of sitting in that steam and heat too long or turn cold by the time the dishes land on your table. Dim sum items are supposed to hot and fresh, but far too often they end up lukewarm and overcooked even at better cart dim sum places like Ocean Star and Empress Harbor in Monterey Park.

Steamed Zucchini Topped With Dried Scallops

Steamed Zucchini Topped With Dried Scallops

Menu order places, on the other hand, are generally more reliable in turning out hot and fresh dim sum items as the dishes there are usually steamed/baked/cooked to order. One recent example that comes to my mind is the Stuffed Zucchini with Dried Scallops that I ordered at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine in Tustin. That item came to my table piping hot and I had to wait about a minute or so for the dish to cool enough so I could eat it.

That said, not all menu order places and not all cart places are created equal. There are certainly a few menu order places that are near the bottom of the dim sum rankings, per my methodology. Additionally, my visit a few months ago to Red Egg, a menu order dim sum restaurant in New York City, turned up a few severely disappointing items. Likewise, there are many that praise Yank Sing and Koi Palace for being excellent purveyors of dim sum despite their use of carts and trays. Just because a place that serves dim sum uses a menu order method doesn’t replace the fact that you still need good, trained chefs in the kitchen.

Xiao Long Bao and Dim Sum Stamp Card at Jasmine in San Diego, CA

Xiao Long Bao and Dim Sum Stamp Card at Jasmine in San Diego, CA

All in all, however, the nostalgia and peek-a-boo fascination with cart style dim sum isn’t strong enough to deter me from eating mostly at menu order dim sum places. And if my dim sum meal with two high school friends a few weeks back proves anything, it’s that you can order delicious dim sum from a menu and still enjoy a long meal with copious amounts of tea and long conversation.

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Best Dim Sum in America (Part 2) – Results!

As I mentioned 2 weeks ago, my month long side research project to find the “best dim sum in America” is over. Results are below, but before that I want to go over my methodology in more detail just so I’m as completely transparent as possible.

I wrote last week that my methodology was based on yelp scores, urbanspoon scores, and some bonus points based on being on a food loving writer’s top dim sum lists. Here it is in more detail:

Total score
=
[Yelp score + (# of Yelp Reviews x 0.0001)]
+
[Urbanspoon % score x 5]
+
[Bonus points using a weighted grade based on mentions on a ‘top dim sum’ list in their metro area in the last 2 years. 1 mention = 0.25 bonus points, 2 mentions = 0.5 bonus pointspoints, 3+ mentions = weighted average of the rankings x 5 bonus points, 5+ mentions earned an additional bonus point]

Dim sum at Lunasia

Dim sum at Lunasia

The first two scoring factors are fairly simple and easy to explain as scores on both sites build the foundation of my rankings. Though, there are a few caveats: 1. I gave an added boost to the number of yelp reviews because I thought the more yelp reviews, the more reliable and better your score was compared to those with few reviews. 2. For the few restaurants without an Urbanspoon review I opted to duplicate the stars they received from Yelp (i.e. a restaurant without an Urbanspoon score but 3 yelp stars got a 60% in my Urbanspoon column).

The third is a little harder so I’ll walk you step by step on how I came up with my score for Sea Harbour. For the first two point factors, Sea Harbour received a base score of 8.19 (Yelp score of 3.59 + Urbanspoon score of 4.6). For the bonus score based on metro area lists, I averaged its ranking across all lists (19.5/8 = 2.4375) . Since lists are based on #1 being the best, I subtracted that score from 10. I then multiplied the resulting number by 0.1 to get a decimal. I multiplied the decimal by 5. The result was a bonus score of 3.78. I added an additional point because I felt that if you had more than 5 mentions, you must be pretty good. So in the end that’s 3.59 (Yelp) + 4.6 (Urbanspoon) + 4.78 (bonus points), or a total of 12.97 points.

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

But that’s enough math. By now I’m pretty sure you’re hungry to find the results of all this data and research. So, without further ado, according to this methodology the top dim sum restaurants in the United States are:

  1. Sea Harbour (Rosemead, CA) – 12.97
  2. Elite (Monterey Park, CA) – 12.436
  3. Nom Wah Tea Parlour (New York, NY) – 12.352
  4. Red Farm (New York, NY) – 12.337
  5. Yank Sing (San Francisco, CA) – 12.217
  6. Dim Sum Go Go (New York, NY) – 11.844
  7. Koi Palace (Daly City, CA) – 11.794
  8. Hong Kong Lounge II (San Francisco, CA) – 11.752
  9. Mama Ji’s (San Francisco, CA) – 11.528
  10. Hong Kong Lounge (San Francisco, CA) – 11.525

For those who are passionate about Chinese food and write about it, Sea Harbour’s #1 ranking comes as no surprise. The restaurant has enjoyed near universal acclaim since it’s open in 2002 and is repeatedly lauded by Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Sea Harbour’s reputation and quality is aided by the fact that it is run by very successful Chinese restauranteurs based in Vancouver, where some of the best dim sum outside of Hong Kong is served.

While Sea Harbour’s ranking is not shocking much of anyone, what will undoubtedly shock some is the #7 ranking of Koi Palace. To be clear, a #7 ranking out of nearly 500 restaurants is nothing to sneeze at, but Koi Palace is considered by some experts to be the best Chinese restaurant in America. By this methodology, it comes to 2nd place even in its own metropolitan area, bested by the venerable Yank Sing. My hunch is that its notoriously long waits, with reports of staff ushering friends in front of the line, has markedly affected their ratings compared to others on this list. If that’s true, it does note a flaw in the methodology where to many folks, service trumps the quality of the food and is reflected on sites like Yelp.

 

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Another interesting thing to note is the relatively small amount of places serving dim sum from the San Gabriel Valley  in the top 10 compared to those from San Francisco and New York. This is not to say that the top 10 places in New York or San Francisco are bad. However, there are a large number of  exceptional dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley that many would argue are better than the San Francisco and New York restaurants in the top 10. This may indicate another flaw in my methodology because not all metropolitan areas are equal when it comes to overall quality of Cantonese cuisine. A number of people, especially of Chinese descent, generally agree that the Chinese food (including dim sum) is better around Los Angeles, with San Francisco and New York in 2nd and 3rd respectively. However, this opinion is fraught with contention as David Chan’s Asia Society article in 2012 elicited dozens of heated argument both on the site and Chowhound. I had briefly considered doing some additional weighting based on metropolitan area quality reputation but opted against it to keep my methodology as simple and non-biased as I could.

Nitpicking the various potential flaws of my methodology, though, obscures the big picture: the dim sum rankings and the methodology are a fairly good indicator of the quality of the dim sum restaurant. In general, a score of 10 points or more means that the place is excellent – where the dim sum is fresh, potentially innovative, and made with care and quality. More than 8 points generally indicates that the place is great, though not to the quality of those restaurants with more points. A restaurant in the 7 point range generally means they are good and fairly solid, though some items may not be very great. A score around 6 points means that the restaurant is ‘fair’ with some items that are good but many items that are not very great. The few restaurants in the 5 point range are ones to avoid with universally negative acclaim. You can take a look at my dim sum ranking spreadsheet here.

In practical terms, the list will be generally useful for knowing where to go and where to avoid to eat, especially when traveling for the holidays or for leisure. For instance, I’ll be going to King Hua (11.306 points) and not Lincoln Seafood (5.264 points) when I go to California in the next few weeks. It’s not a holiday without dim sum in my family and I’m certainly planning to stuff myself with delicious sui mai.

Next up: my favorite places for dim sum and deeper analysis of the rankings, including cart vs. menu order places.

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The Best Dim Sum In America (Part 1)

A little over a month ago, when I linked to my blog post on Red Egg on Facebook, I made a half-serious joke about how should I have a “dim sum bracket” akin to Nate Silver’s “Burrito Bracket” on his FiveThirtyEight site. The burrito bracket, as Silver explains, was born out of his love of burritos and his then-recent 2007 move to the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He then started a food blog to document his search the best burrito in the neighborhood, NCAA March Madness style. However, his work for Baseball Prospectus and start of what would become FiveThirtyEight deferred his search in the middle of the bracket.

I was really captivated by Silver’s relaunch of the Burrito Bracket as a nationwide search to find out what was the “best” burrito in the country. Thus, I decided to actually launch my half-serious joke into a project to find the restaurant that serves the “best”  dim sum in the country (and when I mean dim sum, I mean the Cantonese style food and not others that may market itself as dim sum).

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Of course, I don’t have Silver’s access to staff journalists, researchers, or a veritable selection committee of food journalists and celebrity chefs. However, I did have access to public access to crowd sourcing restaurant review sites, Chowhound discussion forums, and the online publications of numerous rankings of dim sum from various metropolitan areas. So I started similar to how Silver started his revived Burrito Bracket – Yelp.

Yelp scores and numbers of reviews may be a decent baseline, but even Silver himself acknowledges the potential flaws in Yelp. Renown Chinese food eater David Chan goes even further to describe the flaws of Yelp when searching for Chinese restaurants. Thus, I decided factor in other websites in creating my rankings, most notably Urbanspoon. Urbanspoon isn’t without its own flaws, but its another crowd sourcing restaurant view site used nationwide and I thought it would help balance some of the downsides of using Yelp. In addition, I factored in “bonus points” for the number of times a restaurant had been ranked as part of a list of best dim sum places in a metropolitan areas in the last two years by a food journalist and/or Chowhound. No ranking system is perfect, of course, but I thought that might be the best way in having a relatively objective rating system.

Critiques of the rating system (and scores for that matter) will be saved for another post, however, as I want to talk about some initial findings that I think are pretty fascinating in their own right.

In my search for the restaurant serving the best dim sum in America, I did a lot of scouring to find all these restaurants. All in all, I found at least 494 restaurants serving dim sum across 57 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. I got to 57 by searching for dim sum restaurants in both the 50 largest cities in America and the 50 largest metropolitan areas as defined by the Census Bureau. Honolulu falls below 50 in both categories, but has a significant population of those identifying as a person with Chinese descent so I included it too. In total, these metro areas account for 85% of all American residents that identify as Chinese in the 2010 census.

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Afterward, I was curious to see the correlation between the amount of Chinese identified Americans in a metropolitan area and the amount of restaurants in the metropolitan area that serves dim sum. As you might think would be fairly logical, in general there is a pretty big correlation between the two. Using rudimentary and free statistics software by the website Alcula (as I don’t have access to SPSS, STATA, or other more sophisticated software), I found that the correlation coefficient between the two is pretty dramatic at 0.946 as you can see from the scatter plot above.

While that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, I was interested to see which metropolitan areas matched closest to the regression line and which were significant outliers. The two metropolitan areas that looked most in line were Washington, DC, at 13 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 106,721 Chinese people, and Dallas-Fort Worth, at 8 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 55,568 Chinese people. Beyond those two metropolitan areas, I would say a vast majority of the other metropolitan areas were pretty close to the region with just a few major outliers.

The few outliers, however, were pretty significant. The most significant outliers, in fact, looked to have a lot MORE restaurants serving dim sum than their Chinese population would otherwise suggest. The two biggest in this case were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 72 restaurants serving dim sum in an area with just 649,496 Chinese people, and Seattle, with 33 restaurants serving dim sum for an area with just 100,763 Chinese people. This can be explained by the fact that both cities retain significant numbers of people with ancestry from Guangdong Province and/or ties to Hong Kong. Furthermore, both cities not only retain a significant and vibrant Chinatown filled with Cantonese families, unlike their counterparts in places like Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but they also have suburban areas with a significant number of Cantonese families are restaurants, like Bellevue in Seattle and Millbrae in San Francisco.

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

In contrast to San Francisco and Seattle is New York City, which has only 53 restaurants serving dim sum in the metropolitan area that is home to 705,721 Chinese people. This can also be explained by Chinese immigration patterns as the predominant majority of Chinese people that have immigrated to New York since the Immigration Act of 1965 have been from non-Cantonese areas of China, especially from Fujian, Taiwan, and Zhejiang. While the core of what most people see as Manhattan’s Chinatown is still predominantly Cantonese, it is dwarfed by Flushing’s much more diverse pan-Chinese Chinatown and is even smaller in land area than the Fujianese side of Manhattan Chinatown, just east of Bowery and along East Broadway.

Sacramento and San Diego also have less places serving dim sum as their Chinese populations would indicate. As a native San Diegan, my theory is that many Chinese families are willing to drive a couple hours to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, for their fix of really good dim sum on any given three day weekend.

Regardless, I feel the best finding in all my research is that in nearly every major metropolitan area of the United States, you won’t be far from a place that serves dim sum, most of them at least decent. Even in Albuquerque, with just a few thousand Chinese people, I’m never really more than a 20 minute drive from eating dim sum at Ming Dynasty.

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